Spoiler warning for both Crime and Punishment and The Muppets (2011)
Dostoevsky criticism 101: explain why you love or hate the epilogue of Crime and Punishment.
Crime and Punishment was a literary phenomenon from its inception. Dostoevsky published the novel in the Russian Messenger magazine in twelve monthly instalments throughout 1866. Captivated by its portrayal of psychological torment and depravity, readers eagerly awaited the latest developments in the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished former law student who murders and burglarizes a pawnbroker. Throughout the year, they followed Raskolnikov’s struggle to reconcile the guilt of his crimes with his nihilist philosophy, anxiety over being discovered by his family and the authorities, and hope for redemption through Sonya, his Christian love interest.
Raskolnikov is as unpredictable as he is conflicted. He proclaims that his actions are justified because his intellect transcends common law, but he also falls ill from the burden of conscience. When he appears to be on the verge of admitting his wrongdoing, Raskolnikov denounces his guilt as a sign of moral weakness. Even as Sonya finally convinces him to absolve his inner turmoil by turning himself in, he appears to change his mind on the steps to the police station. He does not follow a clear moral arc; he takes forward steps, regresses, and loses direction up to the last chapter.
All of this confusion culminates in Raskolnikov’s final lines to the detective that he had evaded for the entire novel:
Raskolnikov refused the water with his hand, and softly and brokenly, but distinctly said: “It was I who killed the old pawnbroker woman and her sister Lizaveta with an axe and robbed them.”
Just like Raskolnikov’s character, this ending is profound in its ambiguity. What is Raskolnikov’s fate? Did he regret his confession as soon as the words left his mouth? Was this confession sufficient to relieve his guilt, or is he forever beyond redemption? This conclusion consolidates the moral apprehension at the heart of Crime and Punishment. It leaves the reader with the same apprehension as Raskolnikov submitting to the authorities, an unresolved ending to a book that rejects resolution…
…And then there’s the epilogue. For his voluntary confession and good character, Raskolnikov receives what amounts to an eight-year slap on the wrist. Sonya visits him a year into his prison sentence, and he feels overwhelmed by her love. At last embracing his Christian rebirth, Raskolnikov realizes that he is a changed man.
Now, the critics are the conflicted ones. Dostoevsky concluded the final chapter of Crime and Punishment with a profound question mark only to answer it with a tacked-on happy ending. Detractors argued that the epilogue cheapened the novel’s themes, clumsily tying loose ends that should have stayed loose. Not only was it a stain on an otherwise perfect novel structure, it departed from the tone of the preceding story.
Crime and Punishment is full of characters who experience undue suffering. It’s a raw study in depravity and humiliation, and how different ideologies try to overcome them. Why, of all people, was the murderer the one who got off easy?
The epilogue does have its defenders. Their chief argument is that it is necessary for the Christian resurrection of Raskolnikov’s character. Without it, Dostoevsky’s thesis on the danger of radical nihilism would be incomplete (which he claimed was the entire point of the novel). Plenty of scholarly papers take this stance. Many others attempt to refute them, and still others declare that the whole controversy thus far has focused on the wrong things.
For whatever reason, these academics have failed to engage in the same debate over the 2011 film The Muppets.
It’s curious that The Muppets franchise has seemingly fallen back into obscurity after The Muppets and its 2014 sequel, Muppets Most Wanted. Critics and audiences alike praised the movies for their warm humor and mature messages, especially for children’s films. Seven years later, Disney has made no plans to release a third film to round out the Muppets trilogy. A Muppets TV series did air in 2015, but it dried up after a single season. They’ve dropped out of public consciousness, save for a few stints on Disney+ and the occasional Kermit meme making rounds on Facebook.
Ironically, obscurity was a central theme of The Muppets movie. It stars Gary and Walter, two brothers and Muppet fans who help a downtrodden Kermit regroup the Muppet gang. The reason for their reunion is to put on a fundraising show: if they raise $10 million in one night, they can save their theatre from the oil magnate Tex Richman. It’s been many years since the Muppets have performed together, and time has swept away their relevance. Television executives don’t believe in them, kids don’t know who they are, and adults barely recognize them anymore. In a world of fast-paced humor and computer-generated graphics, is there still room for a little puppet magic?
The Muppets movie doesn’t shy away from exposing the Muppets’ precarious place in pop culture. It embraces the fact that Rowlf the Dog, the Swedish Chef, and even Miss Piggy have been collecting dust in the entertainment industry attic. But at its heart, The Muppets is still a children’s movie. To avoid alienating younger viewers, it must entertain and delight. To that end, the film deftly maneuvers between its sobering moments and musical numbers right up until the finale.
The writers for The Muppets movie faced a difficult decision. It’s nearing midnight, the Muppets have just put on the show of their life, and they’re only a few dollars away from their fundraising goal. They wanted to come up with a conclusion that aligned with the Muppets’ struggle to find their place in “a hard, cynical world.” At the same time, the unwritten rules of children’s media state that the story has to end on a happy note. No loose ends.
In fact, this was what the writers initially had in mind: The Muppets watch, devastated, as the donations run out. They’re one dollar short. Just as they lose all hope, Waldorf and Statler say “That wasn’t so bad” and toss them a bill. The Muppets win.
The final release has a very different ending. They do end the fundraising show believing they are one dollar short, but Fozzie Bear reveals that their sign was broken: they are nowhere near their fundraising target. Tex Richman seizes control of their theater. The Muppets are about to leave in low spirits, but before they open the doors, Kermit delivers a final speech:
“…If we failed, we failed together. And to me, that’s not failing at all.And I don’t care if no one believes in us, because I believe.”
The Muppets exit the theater to a crowd of cheering fans. They know that they’ll have to start from scratch, but they’ll always have each other. Their show was a financial failure, but they made people laugh and touched their hearts. The Muppets walk together into an uncertain future, as a family…
…and then there’s the post-credit scene. Tex Richman follows the Muppets out of the theater. Gonzo accidentally hits him with a bowling ball. Richman changes his mind and gives the Muppets back their theater, presumably due to the effects of crippling brain damage. The Muppets win.
The Muppets movie and Crime and Punishment suffer from an inability to accept uncomfortable endings. Perhaps this stems from a hesitancy to disappoint the audience. Or, it might indicate the writers’ intention to land their stories in an unmistakable resolution, however artificial that landing may feel. To disengage a little from the saturated debate over the epilogue of Crime and Punishment it is worth exploring why the same thematic issues that plague its ending also apply to The Muppets movie. Admittedly, on the surface these stories don’t have much in common, but they share several key elements that illuminate the problems with each other’s endings.
The protagonists for both stories struggle to accept their identity. Raskolnikov clings to the belief that he is a superman, a Nietzschean Übermensch who possesses the moral authority to supersede the legal system. His conscience betrays this delusion by constantly reminding him that he is not beyond guilt. Reality bleeds into his idealized self-image, deconstructing his perverse notion of justice.
Likewise, Kermit tries to convince himself and others that the Muppets are a “super-franchise” that transcends cultural mortality. When a television executive tells him that they need a celebrity to host the show, he replies, “I’m kind of a celebrity.” Kermit rejects the idea that he, like any actor that hasn’t starred in a movie since 1999, has faded into entertainment backwaters.
Just as Raskolnikov murdered a pawn-broker in an act of ethical defiance, the Muppets go to astonishing lengths to preserve their constructed relevance. A gang led by Miss Piggy kidnaps Jack Black to be their celebrity shoe-in. Kermit first objects to this heinous crime, but concedes to their plan when Fozzie Bear plays into his exceptionalist mentality:
“But Kermit, what’s more illegal, briefly kidnapping Jack Black, or destroying the Muppets?”
The characters’ desperation drives the turmoil at the core of the two stories. The thing that drives their desperation is the consequence of being proven wrong. What if Raskolnikov is simply a murderer? What if the Muppets are simply a thing of the past? They rail against these truths because they cannot accept the uncertainty that would follow if they accepted them.
This is what makes their endings so poignant. When Raskolnikov confesses his guilt, when Kermit delivers his final speech, they show deep vulnerability. They accept the reality of their identities and the consequences of that acceptance. This act of bravery shows a progression in their character arcs. Without the epilogue or post-credit scene, the audience feels the weight of this decision as Raskolnikov and Kermit journey into the unknown.
As some critics of Crime and Punishment have pointed out, one could argue that there is enough contextual evidence before the epilogue to piece together what happened to Raskolnikov anyway. Similarly, it’s no mystery what follows the final scene of The Muppets movie; the Muppets are functionally immortal and will continue to go on wacky adventures for canonical eternity. But that’s missing the point. From the character’s perspective, they have no idea what will happen to them. The fate that awaits them is very real. Revealing it only solidifies the audiences’ understanding that they are consuming fiction, a story that has a definite beginning and end and leaves precious little room for imagination where it is needed the most.
In another world, Raskolnikov’s fate is left up in the air. As far as the readers know, he might have gotten community service or the death penalty. He might have realized all too late that he was, in fact, a superman, who had surrendered his powers to the common law beneath his feet. But what is clear is that he confessed, and in doing so he invited all of these possibilities.
Kermit and his friends head through the theater doors in, for all they know, a march to their deaths. Maybe a miraculous turn of events brings them back all the fame and glory they believed they still believed was theirs. More unlikely things have happened to them. Or maybe, in unprecedented bad luck, this truly is the end of the Muppets. The only thing for certain is that they have each other. Someday, they might find it again, the rainbow connection.
- Dostoyevsky, 742
- Bobbin, James, director. The Muppets. Walt Disney, 2012.
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, et al. Crime and Punishment. Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
- “THE FORMAL PROBLEM OF THE EPILOGUE IN ‘CRIME AND PUNISHMENT’: THE LOGIC OF TRAGIC AND CHRISTIAN STRUCTURES.” Dostoevsky Studies :: THE FORMAL PROBLEM OF THE EPILOGUE IN “CRIME AND PUNISHMENT”.- THE LOGIC OF TRAGIC AND CHRISTIAN STRUCTURES, sites.utoronto.ca/tsq/DS/03/171.shtml.
- Goldberg, Matt, and Matt Goldberg (14866 Articles Published) . “Details on the Original Ending and Deleted Scenes for THE MUPPETS.” Collider, 28 Nov. 2011, collider.com/muppets-original-ending-deleted-scenes/.
- Holloway, Daniel. “’The Muppets’ Cancelled by ABC.” Variety, Variety, 14 May 2016, variety.com/2016/tv/news/the-muppets-cancelled-by-abc-1201773341/.
- “Study Notes for Crime and Punishment.” Index, lol-russ.umn.edu/hpgary/Russ3421/lesson9.htm